Sunday, 11 January 2015

Not Quite Review Corner: Boom Beach (iOS, Android)

Boom Beach is something I hadn't heard of, even though it's been out for a year, until one of its cheerful adverts caught my eye. I've been playing this freemium app for about a week now, and the excitement hasn't begun to pall. It's one of my new obsessions, which I hope to pass on to you.

Boom Beach takes place in a massive archipelago, populated mostly by tiny villages. You command a mercenary band whose objective is to bring the archipelago under your control. Technically the game describes this as 'free the enslaved villages' but I can't help but notice that, as soon as the villagers are freed, they start paying you tribute, making this less about freeing the oppressed and more about 'new boss, same as the old boss'. In order to do this, you control an attacking force which you can send out via landing craft to the other islands, invading up the beach, smashing the enemy defenses, and blowing up the enemy's HQ. The HQ is the most important building on the map; destroy that and you've won the battle, but don't think for a moment that it'll be easy!

The cartoonish not-quite-Second-World-War visual aesthetic is a lot of fun, and though it's all about combat it's pretty bloodless, which means you don't have to worry about younger gamers getting an eyeful of viscera. Mechanically the controls are very simple. You have no direct control over your troops once they land, so they tend to head straight for the nearest target and shoot it up. Once battle begins, your main means of controlling the situation is from the gunboat offshore, which can fire flares to direct your troops where they need to be, use healing medkits to keep them upright, fire artillery shells on enemy positions to weaken them before the troops get there, and so on. The more experience you get, the more things the gunship can do, but it's powered by energy, which is refreshed only when your troops blow up buildings. This makes each battle an interesting mix of strategy versus utility. Do you send a flare to your troops sending them off to an undefended section of the map, so they can blow up buildings there, thus powering up the gunship which can fire off artillery at something dangerous? Do you head straight for the HQ, therefore not blowing up stuff, therefore not powering up the gunboat? Choices, choices ...

Your main NPC opponent is the Blackguard, a fiendish gang of ruffians dressed in Nazi black who run a series of bases all over the map. Destroy the base and the villagers who live there are free, free to give you all their money and send off tribute every few hours. Ahem. Your initial boss enemy is Hammerman, whose bases are very well defended, but the loot once you beat his pointy head in is phenomenal. Later you'll face off against more difficult boss enemies, but Hammerman's the NPC who'll dominate your early game experience.

Or you could just sally forth and destroy other players' bases, stealing their gold and raw materials. No damage is permanent, so if you blow up half a dozen of another player's buildings they all get rebuilt for no cost after the attack's over. You'll be very grateful for this when someone invades your base and reduces it to rubble!

Speaking of your own island, what if someone raids it, blowing up your HQ and stealing your stuff? You have a range of defensive options, such as the sniper tower, flamethrower, mines, machine gun nest, mortar, cannons and so forth. Again, the more experienced you become, the more options unlock, but each option needs raw materials both to build and upgrade it. The basic raw material is wood, used to build all the low-level gear. Then there's stone, then metal, each of which is progressively more difficult to obtain. Level one defensive buildings won't be able to cope with experienced attackers, so you need to keep upgrading constantly. In addition to the raw materials, each building takes time both to construct and upgrade; at the beginning this might be just ten minutes or so, but soon it's an hour, then two or three hours, and so on.

This is where the freemium bit comes in. The game's special currency is diamonds, which can be used both to buy raw materials and, more importantly, to speed up the building process. Spend diamonds, and that cannon which might take half a day to build is done in less time than it takes to type this sentence. Spend enough diamonds, and your entire base can be fully upgraded, ready to hold off even the most determined opponent.

While freemium is a problem for many people, I have to say I haven't found it to be so here. The big problem with freemium is that the developers often restrict the flow of the premium currency, making it difficult to proceed without spending money. The Simpsons Tapped Out is a prime example of this; it runs on doughnuts, which are almost impossible to find through gameplay, and since many buildings and important characters can only be unlocked by spending doughnuts, the player feels almost obliged to spend money. Not so here. Diamonds can be found in the wild, and can also be unlocked through completing achievements, making it relatively easy to collect a whole bunch without spending a dime.

Play style may also be a factor. This isn't a title you can sink hours at a stretch into; Boom Beach is something you pick up, play for fifteen or twenty minutes, then put down again. Perfect for a smoke break or a quick bash at lunch, but of course in the time in between, when you're not actively playing, you can be quietly upgrading your sniper tower, or whatever else needs doing. So long as you're happy with that, Boom Beach is for you, but if you demand hours at a time from your mobile app then you might get a little frustrated.

I'd recommend this to any gamer looking for a quick strategy experience. It's fun enough for a few minutes at a time, with just enough complexity in it to keep your brain working without overtaxing it. It's not for anyone looking for a complicated strategy experience, or who's hoping for a title that will occupy a lot of their time. It's also not for people who hate to lose. Your troops will get shot up, your base will be raided, your gold stolen, resources nicked. So what? It's only stuff, stuff you didn't pay for, and which you nicked off someone else. Don't get mad. Get even!

Incidentally if you should become a Boom Beach player and happen to come across a charming fellow called Spanky Burn, that's me. I love you, you love me, but stay orf moi laaaand!

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